Is maternal touch used referentially?

Rana Abu-Zhaya, Purdue University


Early social interactions are highly multimodal and include a wealth of cues (e.g., speech, facial expressions, motion, gestures and touch). Infant-directed speech (IDS) by itself may aid in language development. Touch by itself has been also shown to play an important role in dyadic interactions affecting both the infant and the caregiver. However, little is known about the impact of the combination of these two modes of communication on infant language development. In this thesis, I hypothesize that caregiver touch is provided in synchrony with speech, providing the language-learning infant with cues that may not only help her to find words in the continuous stream of speech, but also to map between words and their referents. I examined the naturalistic use of touch by having mother read books to their 5-month-old infants. Results suggest that caregivers temporally align touches with the production of target words. Thus, the infant is provided with yet another cue to segment the speech stream and pull out the words produced by the caregiver. In addition, results suggest that caregivers tend to touch in locations congruent with their speech (e.g., touch the belly while saying the word belly). This might highlight the meaning of target words to infants through the use of touch. Thus, results suggest that caregiver touch may be useful to the language learning infant for both segmentation and word learning.




Seidl, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Communication|Speech therapy|Developmental psychology

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